One of the best ways to ruin a fine weight-loss diet in Vienna is by eating a Leberkäsesemmel. It’s a standard bread roll (Semmel) with a hot slice of, well, Leberkäse inside.
The delicatessen counter at most supermarkets will sell you one. It’s also standard fare in football club canteens and a not uncommon extra at the many sausage stands around the city. But what is Leberkäse, exactly?
- Fat-rich meatloaf that comes in several variations
- Probably not a major component of a well-balanced diet
- …but very tasty
- See also:
Not what it sounds like
(A very basic no frills Leberkäsesemmel)
A quick look at your German-English dictionary tells you that Leber means liver and Käse means cheese. So what we have here is clearly “liver cheese”, a name lacking in both charm and, as it turns out, accuracy.
Neither liver nor cheese make an appearance in Austrian “liver cheese” (but see below). It might best be described as a kind of meatloaf.
The slice in your roll traditionally comes from a baked, crusty loaf, where the main ingredients are typically some combination of finely-chopped pork, bacon and beef.
Sometimes Leberkäse contains horse meat, lamb, or game as its main ingredient, but is always labelled as such.
The result looks a little like a pinkish pate but is much firmer.
As you might imagine, Leberkäse is not exactly fat-free (you have been warned), but it is very tasty (again, you have been warned). Common variants in Vienna are:
- Käseleberkäse – with added melted cheese
- Pikant Leberkäse – with red and green bits of spicy peppers mixed in (my favourite variety before I turned vegetarian)
- Chilileberkäse – spiced up with hot chilli
- Pferdeleberkäse – made with horsemeat
- Wildschweinleberkäse – made with wild boar (you often get this alternative sold at the Viennese Christmas markets, for example)
You increasingly find veganer Leberkäse (vegan) options at seasonal markets, too, and this plant-based version seems to get better with each passing year.
My best guess is most Leberkäse is bought and consumed hot in a roll, perhaps with ketchup or mustard.
But you can buy the “delicacy” in supermarkets as thin cold slices to eat like ham or as uncooked part-loaves for home baking (to be eaten in the traditional roll or on its own with ketchup or mustard).
So is the name Leberkäse some kind of joke?
The words Leber and Käse have nothing to do with the common meaning of each: they almost certainly stem from adaptations of traditional German words like Laib and Kas that reflect the shape and consistency of the food.
Laib still means loaf or cob today. A Brotlaib, for example, is a round or oval loaf of bread.
To really confuse matters you need to take a trip to Germany, where calling something liver cheese is a bit of a no-no unless it actually has liver in it. So any Leberkäse sold in that country is expected to include liver…unless you’re in Bavaria. Outside Bavaria, liver-free Leberkäse is known as Original Bavarian Leberkäse. It’s all a bit confusing.
Perhaps you’re safer sticking to Schnitzel. Or Vienna.